To kick off a summer of football preview content at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players for 2019.
We’ve chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players “who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season.” However, we recognize that that’s still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean the best player. It could mean a player in a crucial role, or even players who have underperformed in past seasons who now need to step up.
Our staff has created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement, but ultimately highlights ten players that will factor heavily into the seasons success. For each player, we’ll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.
Our sixth most important player of 2019 is Gunnar Vogel.
Joe Weinberg (unranked):
Despite the season being over two months away, all signs point toward Gunnar Vogel getting the starting nod at RT to begin the season. New offensive line coach Kurt Anderson praised the rising junior’s progress at the end of spring practice, and he’s one of the few guys on the 2019 NU roster with substantial playing experience as Anderson looks to replace three graduating seniors from last year’s starting group of linemen.
That being said, it’s hard for me to rank a player in the Top 10 that has such little experience and proven ability in his NU career up to this point. Obviously, the Wildcats are going to need guys like Vogel to step up in order to give Hunter Johnson ample time in the pocket and Isaiah Bowser holes to run through, but Vogel has only seen time in five games in two seasons playing for the ‘Cats.
When I think of a player’s importance to a team, I think of guys that have shown promise and consistency in their respective roles in the past who are now tasked with taking on bigger roles for the program. Some may disagree with my criteria of “importance” in this case, but the rationale stated above explains why Jared Thomas and Rashawn Slater cracked my Top 10 and Gunnar Vogel did not.
Before stressing about whether Gunnar Vogel is the right guy to step into the RT role, I’m more concerned about Rashawn Slater’s ability to protect Hunter Johnson’s blindside having never played left tackle in college before and Jared Thomas’ ability to be the senior anchor that a line losing three starters desperately needs.
If Northwestern is going to have any success in the offensive trenches after losing three starters, the two guys that have spent the most time on the line — Rashawn Slater and Jared Thomas — will have to set the tone for this inexperienced unit. Without their leadership and experience, Hunter Johnson and the rest of the Northwestern offense could be in for some long fall afternoons trying to evade opposing defenders.
Noah Coffman (3):
By advanced metrics, Northwestern’s offensive line was below-average for FBS teams during the vast majority of Adam Cushing’s tenure. For the offense to unlock their full potential, that will need to change under Kurt Anderson, and the easiest way for it to do so is via consistency at all five positions.
While Northwestern has relative experience and depth available to fill their holes on the interior, with Nik Urban and Sam Gerak the likely replacements for Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler, right tackle is a bit more wide-open. Vogel is the only candidate who has seen the field in his career, and while somebody like Sam Stovall, who reached the two-deep consistently as the Wildcats got deeper into 2018, could make noise, it is Vogel’s job to lose.
It’s very simple: without a consistent presence on the right side of the line, Northwestern will struggle mightily to develop their running game and keep Hunter Johnson off the ground. In limited action, Vogel has struggled. The offensive line will always be the group tasked with keeping the offense on schedule, and a group filled with young, inexperienced skill-position players needs things to go right in front of them. Nothing else can work without a consistent effort up front, and Gunnar Vogel will probably key that effort.